When Olympic Destroyer hit the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, a quick list of suspects behind the attack surfaced.
Reports attributed the destructive attack to Russia and North Korea. In the malware, which was designed to wreak havoc on the Olympics IT system, there were lines of code that only North Korean hackers had used in the past.
But new research from Kaspersky Lab shows these codes were purposely left in there to throw researchers off their trail.
"Attackers are becoming smarter and they know that creating the ultimate false flag is the ultimate defense," Vitaly Kamluk, director of Kaspersky's global research and analysis team, said Thursday at the cybersecurity company's conference in Cancun, Mexico.
Finding out who's behind cyberattacks is essential for taking countermeasures, but it can be difficult for researchers to pinpoint the exact perpetrators. Just because WannaCry, a global ransomware attack from 2017, used the NSA's hacking tools, doesn't mean the US government was behind it, for example. It took about eight months before the White House was able to announce that Russia was behind "NotPetya," calling it the "most destructive cyberattack in history."
Researchers are still working to find out who was really behind the Olympic Destroyer attack, Kamluk said, but he noted that code from North Korea's hacking unit Lazarus Group had been forged.
Kaspersky Lab's researchers discovered the forgery by looking at the "Rich Header" section of the malware, the part of the code that can be found in most executable Windows files. They found several inconsistencies in the Rich Header that didn't match up with previous Lazarus Group attacks. The section was a blatant copy, said Igor Soumenkov, a Kaspersky researcher.
Forging another nation's signature on attacks is like leaving someone else's DNA at a crime scene, Kamluk said. It throws off researchers and creates public confusion and chaos, which attackers want.
"We managed to find 100 percent proof that they were forged. It was to confuse the general public," Kamluk said.
The Kaspersky Lab research team said they expect this to continue with future attacks, and that attribution will have to be much more careful in the future.
"This campaign shows us that nation-state actors know to play games with researchers," Kamluk said. "They wanted this error."
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